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Mindfulness and Pain, Part 2: Body Awareness

February 4, 2010

Something came up yesterday, and I thought I’d first throw in some clarification. It concerns demands.

What I wrote in the Psychiatry, freedom, and noninterference post applies across the board. The last thing I want to do is come across as telling other people what they should be doing; people in any kind of pain (physical, emotional, spiritual, or any combination) get enough of that already! Sometimes it seems that people come out of the woodwork just to tell us what we should be doing, while rarely offering any useful perspective–much less tools–to help us understand and cope with our suffering.

Meloukhia’s recent post on The ‘Sick Role’ and Perceptions of Disability helped me understand better what might be motivating a lot of people’s bossiness, not to mention their frustration at chronic conditions which they do not understand–and which do not magically go away. This approach pretty well precludes real empathy or compassion. It’s easy to see this play out in one piece a friend pointed me to yesterday. Again, knowing what’s going on can help us not let ourselves get sucked into the same mental patterns, and use them to further bludgeon ourselves.

On the other hand, after long enough experience seemingly trapped between “Just pull yourself together!” and “You’re broken, now do as I say and stop whining!” it can be very easy to develop demand sensitivity, along with its offspring, demand resistance. When the people around you come up with a lot of impossible and conflicting demands–particularly implied ones–looking hard for those demands is very understandable. I am trying to comb out a huge tangle of that one, myself, picked up while living in an emotionally abusive situation. While this is another type of suffering that mindfulness can help relieve, I really do not want to aggravate anyone else’s!

What I am hoping to do is, quite simply, share some coping techniques which have helped (not somehow magically cured) me. While a lot of people seem to be offering all demands and no practical tools, I’m trying to describe some of the tools I have found, for other people to do with as they will. I am specifically not trying to suggest that the exact same thing will help everyone, nor that they’re somehow Lazy or Not Trying Hard Enough if it just does not work–not to mention if they’re too overwhelmed to go rummaging for/machining more tools.

On to the intended post. 🙂

In the first part, I wrote about mindfulness and pain/sensory management in a more general sense. In this one, I want to move on to some specific practices which have helped me.

On the more clearly physical side of things, I recognized a need to work on body awareness. Mine was poor enough, from spending so much time and effort on blocking/ignoring body signals, that I could not even tell when my muscles were tight–much less what was contributing to making and keeping them that way. It led to further injury, so more blocking of sensations, and so on.

This is a fairly common problem, AFAICT. As Thich Nhat Hanh summed it up in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings:

The first establishment is “mindfulness of the body in the body“. Many people hate their bodies. They feel their body is an obstacle, and they want to mistreat it.

He also mentions the Kayagata-sati Sutta: Mindfulness Immersed in the Body, which might be helpful.

Ignoring and mistreating our bodies is encouraged a lot by our society. It’s way too easy to fall into treating your body like some sort of balky telepresence robot, for your mind to force into doing its bidding–sometimes to the breaking point. We are encouraged to ignore things like hunger signals, and push through injuries. Your body is not some kind of machine separate from the rest of you–and if you treat an actual piece of machinery like that, it will break down too!

This can be further complicated if you already have trouble sorting out and identifying the sensory signals, as addressed in Anne C.’s Feeling Hungry” (or not) – Body Awareness and Eating. It’s even more tempting to block off awareness of your body if you are already experiencing pain and other sensory issues.

The good thing here? You can learn better awareness, and teach yourself to pay attention to and interpret your body’s signals. Even after most of a lifetime spent trying to do the opposite.

I started out with trying to pay more attention to my posture and the way my body was moving: first becoming reacquainted with actually being mindful of body sensations, and then adjusting the way I held and moved my body accordingly. In the beginning, I could not even tell that I was going around with my shoulders slumped over most of the time, much less that it was leading to pain from abused muscles! I had also been ignoring huge muscle knots in my abdominal muscles, brought on by going around in public with my belly sucked in for so long that I didn’t even notice anymore. That was the situation all over when I started paying better attention, and progressively turning most things I did into moving meditation.

The same went for mindfulness of other body sensations, like hunger and the weird sensory stuff. After 25+ years of trying to shrink myself physically by purposely ignoring hunger sensations and my body’s indications of what kind of foods and how much of them it wants, that was a very important application of mindfulness. Despite some other assumptions which don’t work so well for me, I’d recommend Susie Orbach’s classic Fat is a Feminist Issue for more on how this dissociation can play out. Many of the same factors apply to mistreating yourself through compulsive exercise while ignoring your body’s signals.

Another recent post well worth mentioning in this context: Food isn’t poison: “When society has become so risk-averse that we can’t even enjoy food, you know something is terribly out of whack.” Also, as another thought-provoking post points out, “A society where women are applauded for their ability to become smaller, I have realised, is something that poses more danger than I would have imagined. It is thinness, not health, trimness, not intelligence, that is still portrayed as the true measure of success.” I was struck hard by similar realizations after losing an unhealthy amount of weight through illness, much like that author; however, I would stick to “smaller” rather than “thin” as the real goal there, since IME you can be visibly bony and still be too big for some people. It’s hard not to absorb some of these too-common attitudes, which encourage lack of body awareness around eating, all the way up to diabulimia and similar.

On the sensory sensitivity/disruption side, I started being mindful of what was going on before things reached the point of total overload. (And it became clearer how the pain sensations and other sensory stuff are interrelated.) Just learning that the sensory issues were real helped a lot, and allowed me to focus on what sensations I was actually experiencing rather than automatically try to cram them down, for more of the Tar Baby/thoughtlessly dammed river effect.

As I touched on before, after it got so that I could consistently pay better attention to what my body was trying to tell me–including what was causing/exascerbating a lot of pain and other sensory signals–then I could adjust what I was doing accordingly. I could pay attention to feedback telling me that I needed to avoid certain sensory stimuli and body postures. I was able to feel what body postures and movements were more mechanically sound, and less likely to abuse my muscles and joints. I became better able to say “Hey, standing up and washing all these dishes is not a good plan when my back is already tense, but not yet spasming.” (Yes, this step also applies to mental/emotional pain, in reaction to and exascerbating the physical sensations or not. It’s all related.)

In my experience, body mindfulness is very rightly described as the first establishment of Right Mindfulness. (It’s also the first thing to work on in Taoist Water Method meditation, which I am looking into now.) Only after working on mindfulness of body sensations, and generally treating my body better, could I pay proper attention to other things. Living in our minds all the time is just not tenable, nor is trying to maintain the false split between these parts of us. That’s dangerously unbalanced, with some very clear consequences at times.

At this point, you can pay attention to bodily sensations, and are probably starting to see how that affects your mental/emotional reactions to the sensations. Further exploring that interaction comes next. That’s what I want to write about in the next part.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2010 12:15 pm

    I am reading your series with great interest. I have been attending yoga for about a year and using some body awareness techniques in individual movement therapy for about six months. While I find them useful, I do have to say, it’s freaking hard. It just seems a lot easier to just ignore pain/sensory stuff than to actually feel it, even though I know that ignoring sensations will ultimately be harmful.

    • urocyon permalink
      February 8, 2010 3:10 pm

      Glad you’ve found these posts interesting. 🙂 I was originally thinking of a single post, but this is a big subject!

      I know exactly what you mean, with its seeming easier to ignore the pain/sensory stuff. It’s still really tempting sometimes, even though mine got to the point that it was obvious that approach wasn’t working very well. The sensations will try very hard indeed to get your attention, which I forgot to go into in this post–guess that will wait for the next one!

      When you haven’t been paying attention to body sensations, it’s definitely a steep learning curve!

      How is the yoga working out for you? I haven’t tried it, but have been planning to start into Tai Chi, in part to help deal with the musculoskeletal stuff. We’re moving at some point in the relatively near future–waiting for Nigel’s visa to come through now–so I thought it was better to wait until we’re settled in on the other end. In the meantime, I’ve been doing some mindful stretching, sometimes turned into dance. What sort of individual movement therapy have you been doing?


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